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Trump disrupts, but may not have halted, Iran’s planned ‘Year of Iran’ 

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The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani is a setback for Iran’s attempt to influence and dominate the Middle East. An attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and rockets attacks carried out by pro-Iranian militias over the past year in Iraq showed that Iran believed it could pressure the United States. Now President Trump has sent a major message to Iran, surprising its regime when it least expected.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had tweeted on Jan. 1 that Trump couldn’t do “anything” to Iran. Soleimani appeared to agree, flying into Baghdad on the night of Jan. 2 and meeting with Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was responsible for firing rockets at American bases. They were killed in the U.S. drone strike near Baghdad International Airport. If the U.S. and Iran are engaged in a chess game across the Middle East, with deadly consequences, the U.S. just took Iran’s queen and a bishop off the board. Key figures in Iran’s network of warlords and proxies now must be worried about their own future.

Iran has been under increasingly tough U.S. sanctions as it enters the new year, but it has put on a positive face. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, fresh from trips to Moscow and Beijing, boasted that in his “final trip of the decade” he had built consensus with Russia and China. Iran wants to use this year to reduce U.S. influence in Iraq and Syria and boost Iran’s global role.

U.S. national defense strategy views China and Russia as long-term strategic competitors. “It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model,” the Department of Defense says. Iran wants to be a partner in this alliance against the U.S. and Tehran is positioning itself to make this “the year of Iran.” Last year it spent time pushing back against U.S. sanctions and allies. In May and June, Iran attacked oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, according to U.S. and U.K. assessments. It downed a sophisticated American drone in June and fired rockets at bases housing U.S. forces across Iraq. It also planned the attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility using two dozen drones and cruise missiles. Iranian-backed  groups linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps also fired rockets at Israel in January, September and November of last year.

Iran’s goal was to show it can strike by land, sea and air at targets of its choosing along 3,000 miles of frontline with the U.S. and its allies, from Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia to Lebanon’s border with Israel. Having laid down that gauntlet, Iran’s next move is more strategic. It has laid out a naval policy that links it with Russia and China through a naval drill in late December. It is pushing joint work with India and Oman through a recent ministerial visit by India’s minister of external affairs to Tehran and Muscat. What does Iran want with India and Oman? It wants to use Oman to push a new maritime security policy it called “HOPE” in the Persian Gulf. With India, Iran is inaugurating a port project in Chabahar that links Afghanistan to the sea via Iran, and also links Iran and India.

Tehran also seeks a new opening with Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia and India. With Turkey and Malaysia, it has been discussing a new system of trade based on a “gold dinar” that they believe will get around U.S. and Western sanctions. With Japan, where Iran’s president went in December, the country wants to anchor relations in Asia. 

Now 2020 is off to a difficult start for Iran in the Middle East. While Washington responded judiciously to the increased rocket attacks on U.S. forces, by striking back against the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq, it also may have enabled Iran to flex its political muscles in Baghdad. The second-largest Iraqi political party, the Fatah Alliance, is run by Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization. Amiri’s Badr Organization has armed units within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an umbrella group of pro-Iranian militias. Kataib Hezbollah is part of the same PMU and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was a colleague of Amiri. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused them of being Iranian proxies. But in Iraq, these men controlled not only a part of the security forces, but also the political gates to Baghdad. That was clear when they marched on the U.S. embassy on Dec. 29 and there were no riot police to stop them. The riot police have been stopping Iraqi protests from reaching the same Green Zone since October. Muhandis, Amiri and Iran’s allies in Iraq were saying to the U.S., “We control Baghdad, not you.” President Trump responded by showing them that they can be hunted down wherever they are — and that Washington’s threats are not idle.

Iran’s game plan is not defeated. It will continue to exercise control in parts of Syria, cementing its role there. It uses Syria and Iraq to transfer weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has warned Iran against this Iranian entrenchment. However, there is little evidence Iran’s role is diminishing in Iraq and Syria, even without key leaders. Instead, Tehran hopes that 2020 will be the year it can evict the U.S. from Iraq and Syria and dominate the region for itself, from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon. 

The question for both Tehran and Washington is whether the U.S. strike on Soleimani is part of a larger game plan, or was simply a symbolic and deadly message that will not be repeated.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.

Tags Anti-Western sentiment Donald Trump Iran aggression Iraqi insurgency Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Kata'ib Hezbollah Mike Pompeo Qassem Soleimani Quds Force US air strike

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